Women in Pharmacy Making Strides to Close the Leadership Gap

Drug Topics JournalDrug Topics March 2021
Volume 165
Issue 3

During Women’s History Month, we celebrate the achievements of women in pharmacy practice.

Minh Dang, RPh, was in high school working as a cashier at an Osco Drug in a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts, in the late 1980s. A friendly kid who loved math and science, she wasn’t sure what career to pursue. One day, the store’s pharmacy manager pulled her aside and asked, “What do you think about a career in pharmacy?”

She was 16 or 17 years old at the time. Although there were doctors and nurses in her family, there wasn’t a single pharmacist. Dang now looks at that conversation as a pivotal point in her life.

Dang credits her success in the pharmacy profession today to the skills she learned working with patients early in her career. For example, during an internship at a pharmacy in Boston, she encountered a patient who insisted on speaking with a pharmacist instead of her. Dang calmly explained that she was the pharmacist, which confused him. Most pharmacists at the time were white men and she doesn’t remember knowing any Asian American women pharmacists at the time, she said. But Dang took the conversation in stride.

Minh Dang, RPh

Minh Dang, RPh

She asked how she could help, and that simple question persuaded the patient to open up to her. Dang’s advice for handling tense conversations with patients? “Be professional and kind and caring. They will convert.”

Since 2013, Dang has served as assistant dean for experiential education and professor of practice for clinical sciences at the School of Pharmacy and Health Sciences at Keck Graduate Institute in Claremont, California. This is a full-circle moment in her career because it’s now her mission to inspire students and connect them with real-world work experiences in pharmacy.

Women Are In the Majority, But Leadership Roles Lag

Dang is one of 5 women pharmacists featured in this story. Unlike her experience with the pharmacy manager at Osco Drug, most of the women featured had a role model in a relative who was a pharmacist. Some attributes shared by all of these women: an early passion and affinity for math and science and a desire to help people.

According to the American Pharmacists Association (APhA), 67% of its members are women. And the industry can look forward to welcoming many more women into its ranks in the future: As of fall 2019, 64% of pharmacy students were women, a metric that’s held steady for 20 years, according to Frank Fortin, CAE, senior vice president for communications, marketing, and media relations at APhA.

Debra Parker, PharmD, dean and associate professor at the College of Pharmacy at University of Findlay in Findlay, Ohio, looks to the 1960s as a decade when things started to change for women in professional roles, including pharmacists. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed. The law made it illegal for most employers to discriminate against women in decisions about hiring and promotions; creating a work environment that’s hostile based on sex and sexual harassment was also rendered illegal. That was preceded in 1963 by the passage of the Equal Pay Act, which made it illegal to pay women a lower wage than their male colleagues when the decision is based on their sex.

That’s when you started to see women become more prevalent in many fields, said Parker, who noted that women represented only 15% to 16% of pharmacists in the mid-1960s. Although women will likely continue to form the majority of the pharmacist workforce, she said there are more men in leadership roles in pharmacy.

First Female Pharmacy School Dean in Ohio

In 2000, there were 82 pharmacy schools in the United States.1 Fifteen percent of them were led by a female dean, according to Parker. As of October 2020, there were 143 pharmacy schools1, 25% of which have a female dean, she said. That’s at odds with the number of pharmacy school graduates and women working as pharmacists.

Debra Parker, PharmD

Debra Parker, PharmD

The statistics about the percentage of women leading pharmacy schools were “startling” to Parker, she said. Parker is the only female dean among the 7 pharmacy schools in Ohio. She’s also the first female pharmacy school dean in the state. Although her counterparts at Ohio’s other pharmacy schools are all men, 2 of them have recently stepped down from their roles as dean and women have taken on those roles on an interim basis.

Parker didn’t have her sights set on a leadership role in academia. That said, she embraces the “lean in” approach, which, for her, means she doesn’t turn away from opportunities because she’s a mother. Instead, Parker focuses on how to make it work. She also credits her extremely supportive spouse.

While serving as a faculty member and an academic chair at the College of Pharmacy at University of Findlay, Parker was asked to take on the role of interim dean. “That was a little bit scary for me,” she said. “I had never aspired to being a dean, but I also felt that I knew the operations of our program and our university well enough that I could hold down the fort.”

But after serving on an interim basis starting in August 2014, she said to herself: “Why are you selling yourself short here? [You] can do this job.” She applied for it and was named dean in April 2015.

In a story published in a student newspaper at Findlay University after she was named dean, Parker stressed that the pharmacy program’s “family focus” is a distinguishing factor; it also makes her “confident and comfortable” in her role as dean.2

Inpatient Pharmacy Leader in Boston

Joy Vreeland, PharmD, BCPS, director of inpatient pharmacy at Boston Medical Center, had an uncle who was a pharmacist. That inspired her decision to work as a tech at CVS Pharmacy during her senior year of high school.

“I got a little taste of what retail pharmacy looks like,” she said. “The techs were wonderful. I had a lot of customer interaction. I thought, ‘This seems like it would be a good fit for my long-term interests.’”

Joy Vreeland, PharmD, BCPS

Joy Vreeland, PharmD, BCPS

That was before she understood the role of a hospital pharmacist. While she was a student at Northeastern University, she had a work experience in the intravenous room at Boston Children’s Hospital, where she helped treat very sick patients. “That was like a whole new world,” said Vreeland, who described the experience as “invigorating.”

She grew more certain about a career in hospital pharmacy in her last year of pharmacy school during a clinical rotation. That’s where Vreeland witnessed pharmacists working side by side with nurses and doctors in the treatment of patients.

Vreeland continues to make an impact at Boston Medical Center. “The easiest way to describe how great Joy is to describe the operation she runs,” said David Twitchell, PharmD, MBA, vice president and chief pharmacy officer at Boston Medical Center. “The [Boston Medical Center] inpatient and clinical pharmacy programs are [in my opinion] among the best in the country by any metric…The [Boston Medical Center’s] team shines because of Joy’s leadership.”

Independent Pharmacy Owner in Florida

Firmly planted in Sebastian, Florida, for 37 years, Bay Street Pharmacy is owned by Theresa Tolle, BPharm, FAPhA, a pharmacist, and her husband, Joe.

Theresa Tolle, BPharm, FAPhA

Theresa Tolle, BPharm, FAPhA

The pharmacy is a short drive from Walgreens Pharmacy and Sebastian Discount Pharmacy. When asked how Bay Street Pharmacy thrives in the midst of heady competition, Tolle said she works hard to maintain relationships in the community. She registers the pharmacy to sponsor the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, is active in the local chamber of commerce, and serves on the board of the local hospital.

It helps that many of her employees have been at the pharmacy for 15 years or more, Tolle said. While she followed in her aunt’s footsteps as a pharmacist, she also spent years learning about working with customers at her parents’ feed store.

Tolle is past president of the Florida Pharmacy Association. In March, she starts her term as 2021-2022 president-elect of the American Pharmacists Association before she takes the reins as the organization’s president in March 2022.

Infectious Diseases Pharmacist Tackling COVID-19

Kaitlyn Rivard, PharmD, BCPS, an infectious diseases clinical pharmacist at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, was 13 years old when she realized she wanted to be a pharmacist. At the time, her aunt had just graduated from pharmacy school. “She was a young professional. I liked that she was able to support herself and be independent, and she always genuinely liked her job. I wanted to be just like her,” she said.

Kaitlyn Rivard, PharmD, BCPS

Kaitlyn Rivard, PharmD, BCPS

She typically fills her days at Cleveland Clinic working collaboratively with physicians to select the timing, dosing, and the right combination of antibiotics to treat patients. Always in Rivard’s sights is making sure that drugs are used safely.

But she hasn’t been doing her day job at Cleveland Clinic since November. That’s when Rivard started leading the health system’s COVID-19 vaccination response from a pharmacy standpoint. At first, she thought her days would be spent managing the vaccine supply. Instead, because inventory is scarce and the need is so acute, she has been plugged into all aspects of the vaccination process, including deciding how many vaccination bays are required and keeping an eye on day-to-day operations.

Looking Back and Ahead

Elizabeth Gooking Greenleaf, who started an apothecary shop in Boston in 1727, is recognized as the country’s first female pharmacist.3 As a mother of 12, she certainly embraced “leaning in,” as do the pharmacists featured here.

Although there is more work to be done to close gender gaps, women are increasingly breaking ground in pharmacy leadership. According to the 2019 National Pharmacist Workforce Study, of the actively practicing pharmacists who were in management positions in 2019, 58.8% were female, compared with 40.5% in 2009.4 Today, women are serving as pharmacists behind the counter, in team-based care at the patient bedside, and in boardrooms, as well as tackling the logistics to ensure an end to the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.

Surely, Greenleaf would be proud of the accomplishments of women in pharmacy today. But despite strides, a gender gap remains. To further advance women in the profession, continued mentorship and leadership development will be key.


  1. Brown L. Years of rampant expansion have imposed Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest conditions on US pharmacy schools. Am J Pharm Educ. 2020;84(10):ajpe8136. doi:10.5688/ajpe8136
  2. Stubbs S. Debra Parker selected as new dean for the College of Pharmacy. The Pulse. April 7, 2015. Accessed February 6, 2021. https://pulse.findlay.edu/2015/uncategorized/news/debra-parker-selected-as-new-dean-for-the-college-of-pharmacy/
  3. Women Pharmacist Day spotlights important contributions, accomplishments of female pharmacists. News release. PR Newswire. October 3, 2018. Accessed February 8, 2021. https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/women-pharmacist-day-spotlights-important-contributions-accomplishments-of-female-pharmacists-300723013.html
  4. American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy, American Pharmacists Association. 2019 National Pharmacist Workforce Study, Executive Summary. January 10, 2020. Accessed February 8, 2021. https://www.aacp.org/sites/default/files/2020-03/2019_NPWS_Executive_Summary.pdf

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